Battle of France

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: World War II

Battle of France
Part of World War II

Date 10 May 1940 – 22 June 1940
Location France
Result Decisive Axis victory
United Kingdom


Maurice Gamelin, Maxime Weygand (French)
Lord Gort ( British Expeditionary Force)
H.G. Winkelman (Dutch)
Gerd von Rundstedt (Army Group A)
Fedor von Bock (Army Group B)
Wilhelm von Leeb (Army Group C)
H.R.H. Umberto di Savoia (Army Group West)
144 divisions
13,974 guns
3,384 tanks
3,099 aircraft
Total: 2,862,000
141 German divisions
32 Italian divisions
7,378 guns
2,445 tanks
5,446 aircraft
Total: 3,350,000 Germans
700,000 Italians
360,000 dead or wounded
1,900,000 captured
45,000 dead
110,000 wounded
Western Front (World War II)
France - The Netherlands - Dunkirk - Britain - Dieppe - Villefranche-de-Rouergue - Normandy - Dragoon - Arnhem - Scheldt - Hurtgen Forest - Aachen - Bulge - Plunder - Varsity - Aintree

In World War II, the Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France, was the German invasion of France and the Low Countries, executed 10 May 1940, which ended the Phony War. German armored units pushed through the Ardennes, outflanking the Maginot Line and unhinging the Allied defenders. Paris was occupied and the French government fled to Bordeaux on 14 June. France capitulated on 25 June after the French Second Army Group was forced to surrender on 22 June. For the Axis, the campaign was a spectacular victory.

France was divided into a German occupation zone in the north and west, a small Italian occupation zone in the southeast and a collaborationist government in the south, Vichy France. The British Expeditionary Force and many French soldiers were evacuated from Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo. France remained under German occupation until after the Allies defeated the German forces in France following the Allied landings on D-Day in 1944.


Following the Invasion of Poland of the preceding year, a period of inaction called the Phony War occurred between the major powers. Hitler originally planned for an invasion as early as 12 November, 1939, however was convinced by his generals to postpone the invasion until the following year. The overall aim was the defeat of the Western European nations as a preliminary step to the conquest of territory in the East, thus avoiding a two-front war. In April 1940, the Germans launched an attack on the neutral countries of Denmark and Norway for strategic reasons. The British, French, and Free Poles responded by launching an Allied campaign in Norway in support of the Norwegians.

Neither the French nor the British anticipated such a rapid defeat in Poland, and the quick German victory, relying on a new form of mobile warfare, disturbed generals in London and Paris. However the Allies, still assuming they would be able to contain the enemy, anticipated a war similar to the First World War, and believed that even without an Eastern Front the Germans could be defeated by blockade, as they had previously. This sentiment was more widely shared in London than in Paris, which had suffered a greater loss of life and material devastation in the First World War. The French leadership, in particular Édouard Daladier ( Prime Minister of France since 1938) held a larger respect for the gap between France's human and economic resources vis-a-vis those of Germany, than British counterparts.

French Supreme Commander Maurice Gamelin
French Supreme Commander Maurice Gamelin

The Supreme Commander of France's army, Maurice Gamelin, like the rest of the French government, was expecting a campaign from the Germans that in the strategic sense would mirror the First World War. The Von Schlieffen Plan, Gamelin believed, was to be repeated with a reasonably close degree of accuracy, and even though important parts of the French army in the 1930s had been designed to wage offensive warfare, it would be preferable to confront such a threat defensively, as the French military staff believed its country was not equipped militarily or economically to launch a decisive offensive initially. It would be better to wait until 1941 to fully exploit the combined allied economic superiority over Germany. To confront the expected German plan — which rested on a move into the Low Countries outflanking the fortified Maginot Line — Gamelin intended to send the best units of the French army along with the British Expeditionary Force north to halt the Germans at the KW-line, a defensive line that is following the river Dyle, east of Brussels until a decisive victory could be achieved with the support of the united British, Belgian, French and Dutch armies. The original German plan closely resembled Gamelin's expectations.

The evolution of German plans for the invasion of France.
The evolution of German plans for the invasion of France.

The crash in Belgium of a light plane, on 10 January 1940, carrying two German officers with a copy of the then-current invasion plan forced Hitler to scrap the plan and search for an original alternative. The final plan for Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) had been suggested by General Erich von Manstein, then serving as Chief of Staff to Gerd von Rundstedt, but had been initially rejected by the German General Staff. It proposed a deep penetration further south of the original route, which took advantage of the speed of the unified Panzer divisions to separate and encircle the opposing forces. It had the virtue of being unlikely (from a defensive point of view) as the Ardennes were heavily wooded and implausible as a route for a mechanized invasion. It had the considerable virtue of not having been intercepted by the Allies (for no copies were being carried about) and of being dramatic, which seems to have appealed to Hitler.

Von Manstein's aggressive plan was to break through the weak Allied centre with overwhelming force, trap the forces to the north in a pocket, and drive on to Paris. The plan benefitted from an Allied response close to how they would have responded in the original case; namely, that a large part of French and British strength was drawn north to defend Belgium and Picardy. To help ensure this result, the German Army Group B was still expected to attack Belgium and the Netherlands in order to draw Allied forces eastward into the developing encirclement, as well as obtaining bases for a later attack on Britain.

The Allied General Staff and key statesmen, after capturing the original invasion plans, were initially jubilant that they had potentially won a key victory in the war before the campaign was even fought. Contrarily, General Gamelin and Lord Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, were shaken into realizing that whatever the Germans came up with instead would not be what they had initially expected. More and more Gamelin became convinced that the Germans would try to attempt a breakthrough by concentrating their mechanized forces. They could hardly hope to break the Maginot Line on his right flank or to overcome the allied concentration of forces on the left flank. That only left the centre. But most of the centre was covered by the river Meuse. Tanks were useless in defeating fortified river positions. However at Namur the river made a sharp turn to the east, creating a gap between itself and the river Dyle. This Gembloux Gap, ideal for mechanized warfare, was a very dangerous weak spot. Gamelin decided to concentrate half of his armoured reserves there. Of course the Germans might try to overcome the Meuse position by using infantry. But that could only be achieved by massive artillery support, the build-up of which would give Gamelin ample warning.

Forces and dispositions

The German Army was divided into three army groups:

  • Army Group A, composed of 45½ divisions including seven armored commanded by Gerd von Rundstedt, was to deliver the decisive blow, cutting a "Sichelschnitt" ('Sickle Cut'), as Winston Churchill later called it, through the Allied defenses in the Ardennes spearheaded by three Panzer corps trying to create the pocket.
  • Army Group B, composed of 29½ divisions including three armored under Fedor von Bock, was tasked with breaking through the Low Countries and pushing the northern units of the Allied armies into a pocket.
  • Army Group C, composed of 19 divisions under Wilhelm von Leeb, was charged with preventing a flanking movement from the east, and with launching holding attacks against the Maginot Line and the upper Rhine.

May: Low Countries and Northern France

The disposition of forces and the 1940 campaign in France and the Low countries.
The disposition of forces and the 1940 campaign in France and the Low countries.

Germany launched its offensive, Fall Gelb, on the night prior to and principally on the morning of 10 May. During the night German forces occupied Luxembourg, and in the morning German Army Group B ( Bock) launched a feint offensive into the Netherlands and Belgium. German Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) from the 7th Flieger and 22. Luftlande Infanteriedivision under Kurt Student executed surprise landings at The Hague, on the road to Rotterdam and against the Belgian Fort Eben-Emael on its opening day with the goal of facilitating AG B's advance.

The Allied command reacted immediately, sending forces north to combat a plan that, for all the Allies could expect, resembled the earlier Schlieffen plan. This move north committed their best forces, diminished their fighting power through loss of readiness and their mobility through loss of fuel. That evening French troops crossed the Dutch border.

The French and British air command was less effective than their generals had anticipated, and the Luftwaffe quickly obtained air superiority, depriving the Allies of key reconnaissance abilities and disrupting Allied communication and coordination.

While the German invaders secured all the strategically vital bridges in and toward Rotterdam, which penetrated "Fortress Holland" and bypassed the Water Line, an attempt to seize the Dutch seat of government, The Hague, ended in complete failure. The airfields surrounding the city (Ypenburg, Ockenburg, and Valkenburg) were taken with heavy casualties on 10 May, only to be lost on the very same day to furious counterattacks launched by the two Dutch reserve infantry divisions. The Dutch would capture or kill 1,745 Fallschirmjäger, transporting 1,200 prisoners to England.

The French marched north to establish a connection with the Dutch army, which came under attack from German Fallschirmjäger, but simply not understanding German intentions they failed to block German armored reinforcements of the 9th Panzer Division from reaching Rotterdam on 13 May. The Dutch, their poorly equipped army largely intact, surrendered on 14 May after the Germans bombed Rotterdam. However the Dutch troops in Zeeland and the colonies continued the fight while Queen Wilhelmina established a government-in-exile in Britain.

Fort Eben-Emael, the fortresses looking over the river Maas and the Albert Canal, the first Belgian defensive line, had been seized by German paratroopers using gliders on 10 May, allowing their forces to cross the bridges over the Albert Canal inwards the heartland of Belgium. The Belgian forces withdrew in an organized manner to the KW-line, their main line of defense and also known as the Dyle-line, where they installed themselves with the British Expeditionary Force and the French Army. This was according Gamelin's plan in the north. The expected major tank battle took place in the Gembloux Gap between the French 2nd DLM and 3rd DLMs (Division Légère Mécanique, "Mechanized Light Division") and the German 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions of Erich Hoepner's XVI Panzer Corps, costing both sides about 100 vehicles; the German offensive in Belgium seemed stalled for a moment. But this was a feint.

The Centre

In the centre, German Army Group A smashed through the Belgian infantry regiments and French Light Divisions of the Cavalry (Divisions Légères de Cavalerie) advancing into the Ardennes, and arrived at the Meuse River near Sedan on the night of 12–13 May. On 13 May the Germans forced three crossings near Sedan. Instead of slowly massing artillery as the French expected, the Germans replaced the need for traditional artillery by using the full might of their bomber force to punch a hole in a narrow sector of the French lines by carpet bombing (punctuated by dive bombing). Sedan was held by the 55th French Infantry Division (55e DI), a grade “B” reserve division. The forward elements of the 55e DI held their positions through most of the 13th, initially repulsing three of the six German crossing attempts; however, the German air attacks had disrupted the French supporting artillery batteries and created an impression among the troops of the 55e DI that they were isolated and abandoned. The combination of the psychological impact of the bombing, the generally slowly expanding German lodgments, deep penetrations by some small German infantry units and the lack of air or artillery support eventually broke down the 55e DI’s resistance and much of the unit went into rout by the evening of 13–14 May. The German aerial attack of 13 May, with 1215 bomber sorties, the heaviest air bombardment the world had yet witnessed, is considered to have been very effective and key to the successful German river crossing. It was the most effective use of tactical air power yet demonstrated in warfare. The disorder begun at Sedan was spread down the French line by groups of haggard and retreating soldiers. During the night some units in the last prepared defence line at Bulson were panicked by the false rumour that German tanks were already behind their positions. On 14 May two French tank battalions and supporting infantry from the 71st North African Infantry Division (71e NADI) counter-attacked the German bridgehead without success. The attack was partially repulsed by the first German armor and anti-tank units which had been rushed across the river as quickly as possible at 7:20 A.M. on pontoon bridges. On 14 May every available Allied light bomber was employed in an attempt to destroy the German pontoon bridges; but, despite incurring the highest single-day action losses in the entire history of the British and French air forces, they failed to destroy these targets. Despite the failure of numerous quickly planned counterattacks to collapse the German bridgehead, the French Army was successful in re-establishing a continuous defensive position further south; on the west flank of the bridgehead however, French resistance began to crumble.

The commander of the French Second Army, General Huntzinger, immediately took effective measures to prevent a further weakening of his position. An armoured division (3rd Division Cuirassée de Réserve) and a motorized division blocked further German advances around his flank. However the commander of XIX Panzer Corps, Heinz Guderian, wasn't interested in Huntzinger's flank. Leaving for the moment 10th Panzer Division at the bridgehead to protect it from attacks by 3rd DCR, he moved his 1st and 2nd Panzer Divisions sharply to the west on 15 May, undercutting the flank of the French Ninth Army by 40 km and forcing the 102nd Fortress Division to leave its positions that had blocked XVI Panzer Corps at Monthermé. While the French Second Army had been seriously mauled and had rendered itself impotent, now Ninth Army began to disintegrate completely, for in Belgium also its divisions, not having had the time to fortify, had been pushed back from the river by the unrelenting pressure of German infantry, allowing the impetuous Erwin Rommel to break free with his 7th Panzer Division. A French armoured division (1st DCR) was sent to block him but, advancing unexpectedly fast, he surprised it while refueling on 15 May and dispersed it, despite some losses caused by the heavy French tanks.


The German Blitzkrieg offensive of mid-May, 1940.
The German Blitzkrieg offensive of mid-May, 1940.

The Battle of France is often hailed as the first historical instance of the Blitzkrieg tactic. Blitzkrieg can be defined as defeating the enemy by means of a strategic envelopment executed by mechanized forces leading to his operational collapse. Von Manstein certainly had had a strategic envelopment in mind. However the three dozen infantry divisions that followed the Panzer Corps were not there merely to consolidate their gains. It was to be the other way around. In the eyes of the German High Command the Panzer Corps now had fulfilled a precisely circumscribed task. Their motorized infantry component had secured the river crossings, their tank regiments had conquered a dominant position. Now they had to consolidate, allowing the infantry divisions to position themselves for the real battle: perhaps a classic Kesselschlacht when the enemy should stay in the north, perhaps an encounter fight when he should try to escape to the south. In both cases an enormous mass of German divisions, both armoured and infantry, would cooperate to annihilate the enemy, in accordance with established doctrine. The Panzer Corps were not to bring about the collapse of the enemy by themselves alone. They should halt.

On 16 May, however, both Guderian and Rommel disobeyed their explicit direct orders in an act of open insubordination against their superiors and moved their divisions many kilometers to the west, as fast as they could push them. Guderian reached Marle, 80 kilometers from Sedan; Rommel crossed the river Sambre at Le Cateau, a hundred kilometers from his bridgehead, Dinant. While nobody knew the whereabouts of Rommel (he had advanced so quickly that he was out of range for radio contact, earning his 7th Panzer Division the nickname Gespenster-Division, "Ghost Division"), an enraged von Kleist flew to Guderian on the morning of 17 May and after a heated argument relieved him of all duties. However, von Rundstedt would have none of it and refused to confirm the order.

It has proven difficult to explain the actions of both generals. Rommel was forced to commit suicide by Hitler before the end of the war and thus never could clarify his behaviour in full freedom. After the war, Guderian claimed to have acted on his own initiative, essentially inventing Blitzkrieg on the spot. Some historians have since considered this an empty boast, denying any fundamental divide within contemporaneous German operational doctrine, downplaying the conflict as a mere difference of opinion about timing and pointing out that Guderian's claim is inconsistent with his professed role as the prophet of Blitzkrieg even before the war. However his prewar writings in fact explicitly reject strategic envelopment by mechanized forces alone as a generally sufficient means to cause operational collapse. Also, there is no explicit reference to such tactics in the German battle plans.

Allied reaction

The Panzer Corps now slowed their advance considerably but had put themselves in a very vulnerable position. They were stretched out, exhausted and low on fuel; many tanks had broken down. There now was a dangerous gap between them and the infantry. A determined attack by a fresh large mechanized force could have cut them off and wiped them out.

The French High Command, however, was reeling from the shock of the sudden offensive and was stung by a sense of defeatism. On the morning of 15 May French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud telephoned newly minted Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill and said "We have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle." Churchill, attempting to console Reynaud, reminded the Prime Minister of the times the Germans had broken through allied lines in World War I only to be stopped. However, Reynaud was inconsolable.

Churchill flew to Paris on 16 May. He immediately recognized the gravity of the situation when he observed that the French government was already burning its archives and preparing for an evacuation of the capital. In a sombre meeting with the French commanders, Churchill asked General Gamelin, "Where is the strategic reserve?" which had saved Paris in the First World War. "There is none," Gamelin replied. Later, Churchill described hearing this as the single most shocking moment in his life. Churchill asked Gamelin when and where the general proposed to launch a counterattack against the flanks of the German bulge. Gamelin simply replied "inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of methods".

Gamelin was right; most reserve divisions had by now been committed. The only armoured division still in reserve, 2nd DCR, attacked on 16 May. However the French armoured divisions of the Infantry, the Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve, were – despite their name – very specialized breakthrough units, optimized for attacking fortified positions. They could be quite useful for defense, if dug in, but had very limited utility for an encounter fight: they could not execute combined infantry–tank tactics as they simply had no important motorized infantry component; they had poor tactical mobility as the heavy Char B1 bis, their main tank in which half of the French tank budget had been invested, had to refuel twice a day. So 2nd DCR divided itself in a covering screen, the small subunits of which fought bravely – but without having any strategic effect.

Of course, some of the best units in the north had yet seen little fighting. Had they been kept in reserve they could have been used for a decisive counter strike. But now they had lost much fighting power simply by moving to the north; hurrying south again would cost them even more. The most powerful allied division, the 1st DLM (Division Légère Mécanique, "light" in this case meaning "mobile"), deployed near Dunkirk on 10 May, had moved its forward units 220 kilometers to the northeast, beyond the Dutch city of 's-Hertogenbosch, in 32 hours. Finding that the Dutch had already retreated to the north, it had withdrawn and was now moving to the south. When it would reach the Germans again, of its original 80 SOMUA S 35 tanks only three would be operational, mostly as a result of breakdown.

Nevertheless, a radical decision to retreat to the south, avoiding contact, could probably have saved most of the mechanized and motorized divisions, including the BEF. However, that would have meant leaving about thirty infantry divisions to their fate. The loss of Belgium alone would be an enormous political blow. Besides, the Allies were uncertain about German intentions. They threatened in four directions: to the north, to attack the allied main force directly; to the west, to cut it off; to the south, to occupy Paris and even to the east, to move behind the Maginot Line. The French decided to create a new reserve, among which a reconstituted 7th Army, under General Touchon, using every unit they could safely pull out of the Maginot Line to block the way to Paris.

Colonel Charles de Gaulle, in command of France's hastily formed 4th Armored Division, attempted to launch an attack from the south and achieved a measure of success that would later accord him considerable fame and a promotion to Brigadier General. However, de Gaulle's attacks on 17 and 19 May did not significantly alter the overall situation.

To the Channel

While the Allies did little either to threaten them or escape from the danger they posed, the Panzer Corps used 17 and 18 May to refuel, eat, sleep, and get some more tanks in working order. On 18 May Rommel made the French give up Cambrai by merely feinting an armoured attack.

On 19 May German High Command grew very confident. The Allies seemed incapable of coping with events. There appeared to be no serious threat from the south – indeed General Franz Halder, Chief of Army General Staff, toyed with the idea of attacking Paris immediately to knock France out of the war in one blow. The Allied troops in the North were retreating to the river Escaut, their right flank giving way to the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions. It would be foolish to remain inactive any longer, allowing them to reorganize their defense or escape. Now it was time to bring them into even more serious trouble by cutting them off. The next day the Panzer Corps started moving again, smashed through the weak British 18th and 23rd Territorial Divisions, occupied Amiens and secured the westernmost bridge over the river Somme at Abbeville, isolating the British, French, Dutch, and Belgian forces in the north. In the evening of 20 May a reconnaissance unit from 2nd Panzer Division reached Noyelles, a hundred kilometers to the west. There they could see the estuary of the Somme flowing into The Channel.

Weygand Plan

On 20 May also, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud dismissed Maurice Gamelin for his failure to contain the German offensive, and replaced him with Maxime Weygand, who immediately attempted to devise new tactics to contain the Germans. More pressing however was his strategic task: he formed the Weygand Plan, ordering to pinch off the German armoured spearhead by combined attacks from the north and the south. On the map this seemed a feasible mission: the corridor through which von Kleist's two Panzer Corps had moved to the coast was a mere 40 kilometers wide. On paper Weygand had sufficient forces to execute it: in the north the three DLM and the BEF, in the south de Gaulle's 4th DCR. These units had an organic strength of about 1,200 tanks and the Panzer divisions were very vulnerable again, the mechanical condition of their tanks rapidly deteriorating. But the condition of the Allied divisions was far worse. Both in the south and the north they could in reality muster but a handful of tanks. Nevertheless Weygand flew to Ypres on 21 May trying to convince the Belgians and the BEF of the soundness of his plan.

That same day, 21 May, a detachment of the British Expeditionary Force under Major-General Harold Edward Franklyn had already attempted to at least delay the German offensive and, perhaps, to cut the leading edge of the German army off. The resulting Battle of Arras demonstrated the ability of the heavily armoured British Matilda tanks (the German 37mm anti-tank guns proved ineffective against them) and the limited raid overran two German regiments. The panic that resulted (the German commander at Arras, Erwin Rommel, reported being attacked by 'hundreds' of tanks, though there were only 58 at the battle) temporarily delayed the German offensive. Rommel had to rely on 88mm anti-aircraft and 105mm field guns firing over open sights to halt these attacks. German reinforcements pressed the British back to Vimy Ridge the following day.

Although this attack wasn't part of any coordinated attempt to destroy the Panzer Corps, the German High Command panicked a lot more than Rommel. For a moment they feared to have been ambushed, that a thousand Allied tanks were about to smash their elite forces. But the next day they had regained confidence and ordered Guderian's XIX Panzer Corps to press north and push on to the Channel ports of Boulogne and Calais, in the back of the British and Allied forces to the north.

That same day, 22 May, the French tried to attack south to the east of Arras, with some infantry and tanks, but by now the German infantry had begun to catch up and the attack was, with some difficulty, stopped by the 32nd Infantry Division.

The first attack from the south could only be launched on 24 May when 7th DIC, supported by a handful of tanks, failed to retake Amiens. This was a rather weak effort; however on 27 May the British 1st Armoured Division, hastily brought over from England, attacked Abbeville in force but was beaten back with crippling losses. The next day de Gaulle tried again with the same result. But by now even complete success couldn't have saved the forces in the north.

BEF at Dunkirk

BEF retreat at Dunkirk
BEF retreat at Dunkirk

In the early hours of 23 May Gort ordered a retreat from Arras. He had no faith in the Weygand plan nor in the proposal of the latter to at least try to hold a pocket on the Flemish coast, a Réduit de Flandres. The ports needed to supply such a foothold were already threatened. That day the 2nd Panzer Division assaulted Boulogne. The British garrison in Boulogne surrendered on the 25th, although 4,368 troops were evacuated.

The 10th Panzer Division attacked Calais, beginning on 24 May. Reinforcements (3rd Royal Tank Regiment, equipped with cruiser tanks, and the British 30th Motor Brigade) had been hastily landed before the Germans attacked. The Siege of Calais lasted four days, before the last French troops were evacuated on 27 May.

While the 1st Panzer Division was ready to attack Dunkirk on 25 May, Hitler ordered it to halt on 24 May. This remains one of the most controversial decisions of the entire war. Hermann Göring had convinced Hitler the Luftwaffe could prevent an evacuation; von Rundstedt had warned him that any further effort by the armoured divisions would lead to a much prolonged refitting period. Attacking cities wasn't part of the normal task for armoured units under any operational doctrine.

Encircled, the British, Belgian and French launched Operation Dynamo and Operation Ariel, evacuating Allied forces from the northern pocket in Belgium and Pas-de-Calais, beginning on 26 May (see Battle of Dunkirk). The Allied position was complicated by King Léopold III of Belgium's surrender the following day, which was postponed until 28 May.

Confusion still reigned however, as after the evacuation at Dunkirk and while Paris was enduring its short-lived siege, part of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division were sent to Normandy (Brest) and moved 200 miles inland toward Paris before they heard that Paris had fallen and France had capitulated. They retreated and re-embarked for England.

June: France

The German offensive in June sealed the defeat of the French.
The German offensive in June sealed the defeat of the French.

The best and most modern French armies had been sent north and lost in the resulting encirclement; the French had lost much of their heavy weaponry and their best armored formations. Weygand was faced with the prospect of defending a long front (stretching from Sedan to the Channel), with a greatly depleted French Army now lacking significant Allied support. 60 divisions were required to man the 600 km long frontline, Weygand had only 64 French and one remaining British division available. Therefore, unlike the Germans, he had no significant reserves to counter a breakthrough or to replace frontline troops, should they become exhausted from a prolonged battle. Should the frontline be pushed further south, it would inevitably get too long for the French to man it. Some elements of the French leadership had openly lost heart, particularly as the British were evacuating the Continent. The Dunkirk evacuation was a blow to French morale as it was seen as an act of abandonment. Adding to this grave situation Italy declared war on France and Britain on 10 June.

The Germans renewed their offensive on 5 June on the Somme. An attack broke the scarce reserves that Weygand had put between the Germans and the capital, and on 10 June the French government fled to Bordeaux, declaring Paris an open city. Churchill returned to France on 11 June, meeting the French War Council in Briare. The French requested Britain supply all available fighter squadrons to aid in the battle. With only 25 squadrons remaining Churchill refused, believing at this point that the decisive battle would be fought over Britain (see Battle of Britain). Churchill, at the meeting, obtained assurances from French admiral François Darlan that the fleet would not fall into German hands. On 14 June Paris, the capture of which had so eluded the German Army in the First World War, after having been declared an open city, fell to the Wehrmacht, marking the second time in less then 100 years that Paris had been captured by German forces (the former occurring during the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War).

The evacuation of the second BEF took place during Operation Ariel during the 15th - 25th of June.

German Nazi parading in the deserted Champs-Élysées avenue, Paris, June 1940.
German Nazi parading in the deserted Champs-Élysées avenue, Paris, June 1940.

Fighting continued in the east until General Pretelat, commanding the French Second Army group, was forced to surrender on 22 June.


France formally surrendered to the German armed forces on 25 June in the same railroad car at Compiègne that Germany in 1918 had been forced to surrender in. This railway car was lost in allied air raids on the German capital of Berlin later in the war. Paul Reynaud, France's Prime Minister, was forced to resign due to his refusal to agree to surrender. He was succeeded by Maréchal Philippe Pétain, who announced to the French people via radio his intention to surrender.

France was divided into a German occupation zone in the north and west and a nominally independent state in the south, to be based in the spa town of Vichy, dubbed Vichy France. The new French state, headed by Pétain, accepted its status as a defeated nation and attempted to buy favour with the Germans through accommodation and passivity. Charles de Gaulle, who had been made an Undersecretary of National Defense by Paul Reynaud, in London at the time of the surrender, made his Appeal of 18 June. In this broadcast he refused to recognize the Vichy government as legitimate and began the task of organizing the Free French forces. A number of French colonies abroad – (French Guiana, French Equatorial Africa) – joined de Gaulle rather than the Vichy government.

The British began to doubt Admiral Darlan's promise to Churchill not to allow the French fleet at Toulon to fall into German hands by the wording of the armistice conditions; they therefore attacked French naval forces in Africa and Europe (see Destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir) which led to feelings of animosity and mistrust between the former French and British allies.



Approximately 27,074 Germans were killed and 111,034 were wounded, with a further 18,384 missing for total German casualties of 156,000 men.


In exchange, they had destroyed the French, Belgian, Dutch, Polish and British armies. Total allied losses including the capture of the French army amounted to 2,292,000. Casualties, killed or wounded, were as follows:

  • France - 90,000 killed, 200,000 wounded and approximately 1,800,000 imprisoned. In August, 1940 1,575,000 prisoners were taken into Germany where roughly 940,000 remained until 1945 when they were liberated by advancing Allied forces. While in German captivity 24,600 French prisoners died, 71,000 escaped, 220,000 were released due to various agreements between the Vichy government and Germany, and several hundred thousand were paroled due to disability and/or sickness. Most prisoners spent their time in captivity as slave labourers.
  • Britain - 68,111
  • Belgium - 23,350
  • The Netherlands - 9,779
  • Poland - 6,092


The great controversy of the Battle of the France focuses on causes for the catastrophic defeat suffered by the French army, and to a lesser extent, the Allies in general.

Some of the suggested causes of the Allied defeat were:

  • Military factors:
    • Treason. This theory was very popular at the time of events. A Fifth column was supposed to be cooperating with a host of disguised German agents. After the war this was conclusively shown to have been a case of mass hysteria, but such stories are still repeated in some popular accounts.
    • Equipment imbalances. In most ways the Allied and German armies were comparably equipped. Both had roughly the same number of tanks and motorized divisions. In armor protection and penetrating power of main armament many of the French and British tanks were actually superior to their German counterparts. While German small arms may have been somewhat superior to Allied equipment, the Allies had a significant advantage in artillery. The German advantages did not lie in having an overall better equipped army, but rather, in superior operational and tactical combat performances.
    • Defensive attitude: French overreliance on the Maginot Line, a chain of forts built along most of the Franco-German border. It is undisputed that the French left the strategic initiative to the Germans; however, the purpose of the Maginot Line was not to serve as a cover-all defense, but to force the Germans to engage French mechanized forces in the Low Countries. In this regard it was successful and served its purpose.
    • Poor strategy: General Gamelin's decision to send his best-trained and equipped forces north to defend against invasion through the Low Countries, combined with Hitler's decision, against the advice of the German General Staff, to adopt the Manstein plan after an aircraft that was carrying a copy of the original invasion plan crashed in Belgium due to a navigational error.
    • The totally mistaken belief by the French military that the Ardennes forest formed a barrier to a modern, mechanized army which would so slow its progress that an effective defense could be organized before a serious threat could develop (this was the case for example in the Soviet-Finnish Winter War). As a result the Maginot Line defenses were not extended to that region, and only second-line forces were put there.
    • Outdated tactics. It is often assumed that there was a neglect of tank warfare by the French, exemplified by the rejection of Colonel Charles de Gaulle's tank warfare tactics by the French high command. The French had built a larger number of modern tanks than the Germans and these were on average better armed and armoured. Also it is untrue that they were divided among the infantry in "penny-packets" or even individually assigned to infantry units as support vehicles; even the independent tank battalions were combined in Groupements and allocated at army level. However, the French suffered from an inflexible division in infantry tanks and cavalry tanks: ironically the former were insufficiently trained to cooperate with the infantry and so couldn't execute modern combined arms tactics. In theory the operational doctrine of both armies was based on partly mechanized maneuver warfare; in practice the French shied away from it, while the best German field commanders were so bold as to let it develop into pure Blitzkrieg if the situation allowed.
    • Communication difficulties. The French communication system relied almost entirely on the public telephone network rather than two-way mobile radio used by the Germans. The telephone lines were often cut by military action (at the time sabotage was assumed) and often the only way of sending messages to the front was by dispatch rider. Allied commanders complained that they often had no information for days and when it did arrive, it was hopelessly out of date. Gamelin was criticized for making Château de Vincennes his HQ, despite the fact it lacked either radio or telephone communications and relied upon motorcycle courier. However the German High Command had poor control of the battle also — although in their case it worked to their benefit.
    • Command. The German Army relied on mission-type tactics, which allowed small-unit commanders to exercise a great deal of initiative in accordance with the objectives of higher headquarters. In contrast, French officers were trained to await guidance from higher headquarters before acting. This explains why the communications difficulties experienced by both sides worked to the benefit of the German Army. The German command structure passed information in both directions much faster than the French system. Combined with the high degree of initiative expected of German commanders, the result was a much faster decision cycle on the German side. French commanders repeatedly issued out-of-date orders.
    • Quality and guidance of German troops in combat. The French population was much smaller and more aged: they were forced to draft a lot of elder men to form so-called "B" (reserve) divisions, which they then could not train or staff properly as most professional instructors and officers were needed to man the "A"-divisions. These divisions were placed at positions where enemy attacks appeared unlikely, such as the Ardennes (the 55th Infantry was a "B"-division).To compensate for the lack of capability, French infantry doctrine stressed the importance of methodical procedure, leading to inflexibility. The Germans too had many insufficiently trained reserve divisions; but those infantry units used for the breakthrough all consisted of young and well-trained men. Their officers on the tactical and operational level were considered the best in the world.
  • WW1 and demographics
    • Intense French losses during World War I caused an inability for the French to regenerate the resources necessary to defend France in 1940.
    • Demographics. France has experienced highly atypical population growth relative to the rest of the Western world since the 19th century. During the early 20th century, France experienced almost no population growth, while Germany was growing rapidly. In conjunction with France's very high casualties in WWI, this caused crippling problems for the French military. The conscripts of the French army were ideally between 20 and 25, meaning that in 1940 they had to be drawn from the generation born between 1915 and 1920. In these years the birthrate was extremely low, because of millions of French men being away from home fighting WWI. Due to the comparatively rigid (at first non-existing) French home-leave regime France was affected far worse than other European countries. The French military referred to this population-gap and its effect on the number of available conscripts in the late thirties and early forties as the empty years.
  • Social and political factors:
    • More controversially, defeatism (or a lack of willingness to fight) among the French and particularly French leaders. This hypothesis was very popular in France itself with such books as Strange Defeat by Marc Bloch. American journalists, being neutrals at the time, observed much of this on both sides: the German populace was not enthusiastic about the war either. Most German generals were opposed to the campaign.
    • On a related issue, a number of French military and political leaders had been reactionaries hostile to the French Republic, and preferring a monarchy or an authoritarian regime in the mould of that of Francisco Franco. Many were sympathetic to the anti-Communist and antisemitic ideology of Nazi Germany. It would thus be no surprise if some chose not to fight the invasion, or even to collaborate with it. Many of such reactionaries in fact collaborated with the Vichy France regime, which was lauded by Charles Maurras as a "divine surprise". However it has never been shown this supposed treacherous attitude had any meaningful impact on the outcome of the campaign.
    • Similarly, the attitude of the French Communists under Maurice Thorez had been anti-war since the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the previous year, but it is difficult to prove that this had any significant effect on the French war effort. After the German invasion of Russia the following year, the Communists became prominent in the resistance to German occupation.
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